It’s midday on Grant Avenue in Chinatown and passersby are turning their heads to gawk at Fire Engine 13. Firefighter Truc Nguyen smoothly guides his ride from Commerce Street to Grant beneath low-hanging red lamps.
The tight corridor makes the engine look huge, but the cherry-red vehicle, one of eight smaller fire engines the San Francisco Fire Department deployed late last year, is uniquely suited to handling The City’s increasingly narrow streets.
The smaller vehicles — nicknamed “Vision Zero” fire engines after The City’s initiative seeking to reduce traffic collision deaths to zero by 2024 — could also go a long way toward reducing tensions between the department and pedestrian and bicycle advocates over street safety improvements.
The Fire Department has begun the ordering process for six more of these Vision Zero engines, Deputy Fire Chief Tony Rivera told the San Francisco Examiner.
In recent years The City has gone on a design spree, widening sidewalks with safety bulb-outs and narrowing streets with protected bike lanes.
The changes increase pedestrian and bicycle safety, but can wreak havoc with the tight turning radius of older, larger fire engines.
Nguyen, however, can guide No. 13 without a hitch.
“It’s always in the back of your head: Am I going to get there fast enough? Am I going to get stuck?” Nguyen says of the old engines as he makes a tight turn onto Clay Street that would force most fire engines into a three-point turn. “You do have a lot more confidence with this rig.”
Bicycle safety advocates and the department have publicly clashed over the installation of new bike lanes. Upper Market Street bike lanes, for instance, were originally designed to be parking-protected, meaning the bike lane would sit between parked cars and the sidewalk. But that design feature was removed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency after fire officials argued their access to buildings would be restricted.
The conflicts have caused bike advocates to label the department as obstructionist, but Rivera said they are “totally pro-Vision Zero.”
“We want to help. We just have an older fleet,” he said, sitting in Fire Station 13 in the Financial District in late February.
The older fleet causes numerous conflicts, but one of the concerns with firefighters was how hard it is to turn the vehicle — not so with the new engines.
“These can pretty much turn on a dime,” Rivera said.
The turning radius on the Vision Zero trucks for a U-turn is 25 feet, compared to the older 1990s-era fire engines that sport a 33-foot turning radius.
The six new engines are about half the cost of their larger cousins, too, at $533,000 a pop. In late February, Rivera took the Examiner on a guided tour of the smaller fire engine.
The engine is shorter and narrower than the larger vehicles, but the little details add up to make it safer for cyclists and pedestrians on the street.
Older fire engines have cabinets on the side with doors that swing out toward the street; the new engines have doors that roll up into the truck. The back windows are larger and placed so firefighters can look out to see passing cyclists and vehicles. There are even mid-vehicle turn signals that are easier for cyclists to see.
“If I’m a bicyclist, I can’t see the front turn signal, but I can see [the middle] one,” Rivera said.
A 360-degree camera atop the engine allows firefighters to see vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians around the entirety of the truck from the driver’s seat.
Once this newest order is complete, 14 of the fire department’s 60 vehicles will be Vision Zero-friendly. Rivera hopes the majority of the fleet may be nimbler one day.
“Mayor Ed Lee, may he rest in peace, before he died, he did approve a fleet replacement program,” Rivera said. But their newest budget ask for new fire engines will go before The City in 2019.
“We are very hopeful the new mayor will support it,” he said.
In the meantime, the trucks have garnered positive reviews from the fire department’s fiercest critics: cyclists.
Vision Zero street safety projects save lives, but those engineering projects “don’t have to result in a trade-off with fire department response times,” wrote Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, in a statement. “By procuring trucks and apparatus better able to navigate San Francisco’s evolving streets, the [fire department] is moving in the right direction.”
Matt Brezina, the leader of street protests to support bike lanes, some of which were opposed by the fire department, said “San Francisco is very behind on this, and that’s because of SFFD slowing down these efforts.”
Brezina said he’s glad to see the smaller engines come into service, and that he’d even help personally advocate for more funding for the fire department to purchase those vehicles.
“There has to be investment for new equipment for them,” he said. “I am 100 percent on board with that.”
The smaller fire engines could help pacify the ongoing dispute between the fire department and cyclists, Brezina said, by letting bike lanes proliferate throughout The City.
“If these fire trucks are a way to do this, I’m all about it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the correct name of Grant Avenue.